Bright bought Washington's pitch, and in June 1999 Morris Brown announced it had petitioned the NCAA for Division I membership. "We want to play Georgia Tech and lose to Florida State by 40 points," Bright pronounced giddily at the time, referring to the football team. "I think it's going to be the best thing Morris Brown has done in decades."
Then something odd happened. Later that year the SWAC presidents denied membership to Morris Brown. " Rudy never told me what happened," says Bright, who adds that the SWAC never returned Morris Brown's $12,000 application fee either. "He must have thought one way, and the presidents' council thought another way." ( Washington declined SI's request for comment.)
Despite the SWAC snub Morris Brown forged ahead in its drive for Division I, adding four sports (baseball, softball and men's and women's golf) and planning a $50,000 upgrade of John H. Lewis Gymnasium (capacity: 3,000). The Wolverines already had a gleaming on-campus, 18,000-seat football stadium, which had been built for field hockey at the '96 Olympics, and they continue to share a track with nearby Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University. The baseball, softball and tennis teams use city-owned facilities at Atlanta's Washington Park. After a two-year transition that ended in September, the NCAA notified Morris Brown that it was an active member of Division I—but not without a few misgivings, most notably the lack of conference membership.
The two men most responsible for Morris Brown's move to Division I have since left their jobs—Bright resigned last January after an alumni-led putsch, while the SWAC fired Washington last May—but the school's athletes, coaches and administrators are too busy dealing with the Division I fallout to dwell on that. "We can't survive if we're not in a conference," says Ellington. "That's the only way our revenue sports will get to [the NCAA tournament], and that's the way to participate in sharing revenues with the NCAA. A conference is going to give you lasting stability, and then you can develop rivalries."
Joining a conference would also guarantee a significant number of home games and lighten the concert-tour-like travel schedule. In a modern-day Long March, the Wolverines will leave on Dec. 26 for a date at Oregon, not to return until Jan. 12, seven games and 18 days later. "That's more than $12,000 just in meals," says new coach Derek Thompson, 32, who was an assistant last year.
"D-I and D-II are like two different worlds," says junior forward Amien Hicks, whose first airplane flight (and first glimpse of snow) took place on a road trip to Pittsburgh last year. "In D-II we'd never miss class, because we'd go to a game and come back the same night. This year we'll miss days at a time." To address that problem, each player travels with a school-issued laptop computer. Some get used more than others. One Wolverine from last year's team is now academically ineligible.
"All the traveling wasn't so bad for Coach Ellington and me because we're old Globetrotters," says James (Twiggy) Sanders, the former Globie who's Morris Brown's sports information director. "But by year's end some of our kids were struggling."
Whether Morris Brown will knock off one of the big boys this season is another matter. Last year the Wolverines had only two post players, the 6'5" Hicks and 6'7" sophomore forward Akiem Claborn, and Claborn fouled out six times. "Size killed us," says Thompson, who brought in four juco transfers this year, three of them 6'8" or taller. "Playing this schedule, we need to have some guys who aren't wet behind the ears."
How does Thompson find the means to recruit 10 scholarship players (three fewer than the NCAA max, thanks to budget limitations at Morris Brown)? You don't want to know. "I don't even have a so-called recruiting budget," he says. "We only have one line item in the budget for basketball expenses [$89,000 for 2001-02], and that's the money for us to travel, feed the kids and do whatever we need to do that year. I'm on my hands and knees begging for some money to recruit ballplayers. Sometimes I foot the bill myself." Earlier this year Thompson spent $1,500 of his own money on a weeklong recruiting trip to Florida with an assistant, no small expense for a coach earning $48,000 before taxes.
Then there are the hidden costs that come with Division I membership. "In Division II we paid refs $125 a game," Bright says. "Now you have a Division I schedule, and some refs get up to $450.1 said, 'Wow, what is happening here?' "